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But that’s… That’s… Oh well, at least you tried…

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Innovation. We’ve been covering a lot of innovation these past few weeks. From the notion that it’s possible to apply innovative practice to your people management

[if only you can get Executives out of the way]

to the way innovators are the singlemost out-group and how you should (to some extent) keep them that way.

Innovation – it’s such a simple word to say and think you understand. Everyone can see why a Dyson vacuum cleaner works

[it’s got see-through plastic, for heaven’s sake!]

but that doesn’t mean that everyone could have invented the Dyson vacuum cleaner, does it? As we pointed out previously, innovation doesn’t emerge from everything being hunky-dory. In fact, creating hunky-doriness (or the illusion of it) is highly likely to stop innovation dead in its tracks. As recently published in Fast Company, thinking outside the box only works when there’s a box to rebel against.

Every innovator knows this.

And every would-be, no-hope-in-hell non-innovator thinks it’s the opposite.

Did you ever see Stevie Ray Vaughan play guitar? Pavarotti sing Puccini? Pablo Picasso reset your horizons?

The great artists make it look easy. Therefore, the would-be, no-hope-in-hell artists think that it is easy. Only the student of the art will tell you the truth – they made it look effortless because they were masters. So it is with innovation. Those who can do it have a natural affinity for finding ways out of problems, for testing the confines of the box and breaking out to new horizons. It’s easy to them because they can’t not do it.

And, as we’ve shown previously, the vast majority of Executives aren’t able to do it. They wouldn’t be where they were if they did – innovators are not celebrated in their own lifetime.

So, we come to the subject of this piece: The Ground-Scraping Idea.

Think of a team, gathered around a table, tasked to come up with something ground-breaking. The team sweats and panics for hours on end. Works hard. Draws flipchart after flipchart. Captures ideas, parking lots, shopping lists – anything that helps the common cause. This team does its best work. And emerges with what they consider a ground-breaking idea.

Which they then present to their sponsor – the non-innovator Executive – who says, “Hurrah! This is just what we need!”

Everyone pats each other on the back and goes to the local bar to order pizza and, oh go on, one beer.

Except for one dissenting voice who never got heard.

The innovator on the team. Or the innovator just alongside the team. That innovator is screaming internally. Just, you know… screaming. Because they have a solution in mind that truly would be ground-breaking. They can see the team’s solution for what it is: a compromise of dull imagination and blunt insight.

They know that, far from breaking new ground, this idea can at best be described as ground-scraping. Like kids-falling-off-skateboards ground-scraping. And, being innovators, they can’t help but come up with the better alternative in less time, with less cost and to better chance of being successful for the long-term.

That’s what innovators do.

Only the team weren’t listening – they couldn’t see innovation, it sounded too much like someone working within the box. The Executive wasn’t listening – they couldn’t see innovation, because surely they would have thought of it before. The innovator wasn’t speaking – they could only see innovation, surely others would have thought of it before?

And there, in a nutshell, is the challenge of deploying innovation in the modern corporation – every practice, process and policy mechanism rewards and recognizes non-innovators, while all the time the output of innovation drives value. That’s the innovation paradox – the out-group drives the value for which the in-group are celebrated. Not since Vanilla Ice misappropriated Public Enemy’s rap and Queen’s bass-line has such a wrong-thing(®) been seen.

So, here’s an idea. Next time a project team reports out on an idea, or a prototype, or a deliverable, why not pause for a while, send it out to the wide colleague population and invite responses to these questions:

  1. How could this idea better meet current business need(s)?
  2. What solution/approaches does this idea not address?
  3. What would it take to make this idea work?
  4. If you had half the proposed budget for this idea, how would you solve the challenge?

Listen to the answers. More importantly, monitor who is answering. From those two data points, ask yourself who could get you to ground-breaking rather than ground-scraping.